Year 2156, Day 127, Hour 1730
Malak sat up, clawing at his chest and throat, trying desperately to breathe. Grief overwhelmed him. His stomach turned over, his eyes stung with wetness.
Just as suddenly as he had woken, the overwhelming sensation was gone. Malak blinked, staring unseeing at the dark interior of his helmet. Never before had he been so completely consumed by emotion. Even when Giltine had been lost, he had been angry and forgotten control, but he had not felt fear. Not shock or the freezing sorrow that had brought him to tears. It took several moments for his surroundings to register in the wake of so much feeling.
The bone forest was burning.
Few of the white columns still stood, and those that did were charred and fragile. As far as he could see into the distance, the canopy of vegetation had been converted to a soft snowfall of ash. Culler bodies – no more than twenty meters from his position, were blackened and crisp. Malak had only escaped the initial blast radius because the sonic boom of the impact had thrown him clear. He would not remain safe for long, however.
Although the ground was soft and wet in the hollows, the small hills burned easily. Even as he concluded that he needed to move, another spark drifted to the rise where he sat, quickly igniting the short grass and dry, fallen canopy leaves. Malak rolled to the side and stood, then hissed against a flare of pain from his back. Once he acknowledged the injury, it was difficult to ignore. The skin across his spine was tight and dry – too hot when he removed his glove and hovered his palm over it. He turned carefully to look at the bone tree that had halted his brief flight. It too was black and smoldering. The sensors in his suit were not working, but from his own careful movements he estimated that not only was his back burned right through his armor suit, but he had one or more cracked vertebrae and ribs as well. His head was also throbbing, although the pain was lessening. He considered that he might have a concussion.
Injuries would have to be ignored for the time being. He needed to move before the ground under him was engulfed in the growing flames. Malak began a careful walk, stretching his muscles slowly and testing his agility. Each step sent a fresh slice of pain into his back, but the headache was almost gone after ten meters and his legs still worked properly. He picked up the pace, heading in the general direction of the pass. He would move faster through the wildfires in the forest than if he followed the line of retreat and had to deal with enemies along the foot of the mountains. A quick inventory revealed that he was ill prepared to meet any significant enemy resistance.
His tomahawk had been lost before the aerial bombardment. While he last remembered his Klim in his hand, it wasn’t there now and had not been anywhere near him when he woke. His service knife was still strapped to his leg, but the rifle he usually kept on his back was nothing but melted nylon straps and a hard lump of what had been the barrel. He wondered if the impact and heat of the burning tree had ignited his ammo and done the damage to his spine. On his belt he found no painkillers. No antibiotics. No anti-fungals. No steroids and no stimulants. One dosage of WuSS foam had survived, and he paused to bend awkwardly and inject it along his spine. The sudden firmness brought relief from the pressure on his lungs and the pinched nerves of his spinal cord, but several playing card sized flakes of gummy, seared skin came off against his fingers. He did not feel anything when his flesh fell off nor in the place where it had been on his back. There was little he could do about it.
He dealt with his most immediate concerns as best he could. Malak picked up the pace to a jog, then a slow run when nothing in his torso seemed to be shifting. The kilometers had never passed so brutally slowly. Each fall of his boots jarred his entire skeleton, increasing the hot pulse in his recently dislocated knee and the hole in his left calf. The flames continued to grow behind him, clogging the air with smoke that smelled of green wood, bone, and spoiled meat. With his sensors and communication systems destroyed, he had nothing to do but think.
Why was the Coalition so intent on protecting Dr. Patay and two other scientists?
Why were the Cullers so intent on taking this outpost from the ground? Why not bomb it while they still had superior numbers – before Coalition reinforcements arrived? Usually ground movements by the Cullers were because the terrain did not allow for aerial bombardment, or because they had been caught resupplying. Why now, in this system, engage in a prolonged battle when the Cullers had nothing of value on the surface?
How did Maker know his name? Almaut was relentless about information security, and Parshav routinely scanned Coalition and civilian databases for anything specific on the Legion and then deleted it. How had she found out his identity? She had displayed ingenuity when it came to communications, but this was the second time she had broken Legion encryption.
The thoughts continued to swirl around in his mind, finding no answers, only conjecture and more questions. Three Cullers died under his knife as he ran, all already injured by the spreading fire or the initial blast. Otherwise, the forest was silent save for the crackle of flames until he reached the far eastern edge. Twilight was fast approaching, the mountains casting long shadows over the human retreat.
Legionnaires made up the rear guard; thirty meters separated each soldier from the next as they herded the civilians toward the technetium refinery. The storage tanks were partially buried underground, but the cooling towers for the plant rose in squat rectangles above the mass of humanity seeking shelter among the buildings. Just beyond, following the pipelines that lead north through the pass, a Coalition forward base had been established. Malak would need to head there to coordinate the defenses of the human soldiers so that his people would be free to hunt down and press the Culler forces.
He hadn’t made it more than ten meters out of the forest when the first of his people spotted him. From the distance, Malak couldn’t tell who it was – not without his tech, but they obviously sent out a comm to the others. Legionnaires paused in their movement and looked his way. Every single one nodded deeply, baring their necks before continuing with their assigned duties. From further in the crowd a lone figure sprinted toward him. The humans parted around Hanako, and she closed the distance to him quickly. Every human eye was on them, but nearly a half-kilometer separated him from the larger group. Hanako was gesturing, and Malak shook his head to indicate he couldn’t hear. They removed their helmets to speak.
“Sir,” she began. He could smell her relief. Happiness. Barely restrained excitement. “I thought…it’s good to see you, Malak.”
“Hn,” he grunted. Just for a moment, he relaxed enough to speak in the deep chuffs and sharp sounds they had learned as children. Good job. He expressed his own satisfaction at rejoining the pack. She grinned, fangs on display. “Who is in charge of the Coalition on the ground?”
“A Colonel Ben-Zvi, sir. Gunnar is with her now.” Hanako paused for a moment. “It seems they were expecting us, sir.”
Maker. He huffed out a snort that was equal parts irritation and resignation. He had announced himself to the Coalition when he accepted her communication – her assistance. It had most assuredly saved his life, but that didn’t stop him from regretting it had been necessary. Or from resenting her intrusion into his mission.
“Take me there. And call ahead for new equipment. This suit is no longer functioning adequately.” He stepped forward, just a beat ahead of Hanako, and she made a low, keening sound when she caught sight of his back. She quickly contained herself, but that brief noise was telling. He couldn’t feel anything, but it would have to look irreparable to make the battle hardened soldier voice concern.
Hanako lessened the tension with another report. “We located Dr. Patay as well. He had slipped to the front of the group and was trying to commandeer a field comm bag. I assigned one of the thirties to watch him and the other two scientists. Until you decide what to do with them.” She didn’t have to say what they were both thinking – it was a waste of valuable manpower.
They both snapped their helmets into place and Malak followed Hanako through the humans, a kilometer across the refinery complex, to the Coalition base. As always, civilians moved out of his way in a hurry, but he did not miss the whispers and gestures his way. More than one human he vaguely recognized. Those he had pulled from buildings or escorted to the main group stared after him in shock. He was suddenly grateful that his proximity comm wasn’t working. Smelling unwashed, fearful, sweaty humans was bad enough – he had no inclination to hear them as well.
The forward base was indicative of the kind of leader Ben-Zvi was. Only the bare necessities had been constructed: two heavy gun platforms, a triage and surgery station, and a small, unassuming HQ. He could see two basebots at work increasing the height and thickness of staggered walls designed to create pinch points for the Cullers that would no doubt attack. There were no tents or shelters of any kind for the refugees, but areas had been designated for rest and hydration before civilians were sent on up through the pass to the relative safety of the extraction point.
Here, among the human soldiers guarding the walls and standing sentry over the base of the mountains, the disparities between them and Malak’s people were startlingly obvious. Hanako was a half-head taller than any individual in the Coalition, and she was not the tallest among the Legion. Malak stood another fifteen centimeters above her, and his shoulders were twice and broad. Even without comparing the shape of their ears and teeth, he and his pack stood out as different. The humans had noticed as well, although few seemed to have reacted with the fear or revulsion that Malak had long expected. He could smell their interest, their excitement. He had never considered himself particularly adept at dealing with human motivations – he had Smierc for that – but it seemed as though the soldiers were eager, even pleased, to see the Legion. It was baffling. But then, perhaps they would have reacted the same to any force that had saved so many of their own.
It required little effort for him to drop the puzzling issue as he stepped past a Coalition guard and into the base headquarters. Three humans were inside with Gunnar, who had obeyed orders and kept his helmet on to conceal his features. At a sensor and communication console in the corner sat a middle aged man, headphones on his ears and constantly throwing furtive glances over his shoulder as he routed information and compiled data for the commanding officer. Another man, taller and older, lieutenant’s bars on his cuffs, stood between Gunnar and the Colonel. Ben-Zvi. Her name was familiar, but it took him a moment to place her. Zulu’s commanding officer. VK10. Malak felt his lip curl up in a snarl and both Gunnar and Hanako straightened to attention. This was the woman who sent green soldiers under Zulu’s – Maker’s – command to infiltrate an enemy base. A fool who threw away other fools. If she noticed the new tension in the room, she did not show it.
“Khalid told us to expect you. I didn’t believe it was possible, but I was assured you would make it through, civilians intact. Excellent work…” She paused, her eyes looking over his uniform for rank insignia. Finding nothing but the patch for the Keres Legion, she continued briskly, “I have triage set up. With your people assisting, we should be able to move everyone through the pass in six hours. I estimate losses of only fifteen percent. You will split your soldiers into two-”
Malak gestured to Hanako, shaking his head.
“No,” she said for him. “We have different orders.”
“Excuse me?” Ben-Zvi’s voice was like ice, but she did not have the opportunity to say anything else as Hemah entered, carrying a new armor suit and helmet. It was standard issue Coalition, apparently the largest she could find. Malak could tell already that it would be a tight fit. She handed that, a replacement Klim, extra ammo, and a med kit to Hanako. Her shallow bow and tilt of the head before she left wasn’t missed by Ben-Zvi’s narrowed eyes.
Gunnar, without prompting, knew what Malak would require next. “Lieutenant, comms, let’s take a walk.”
“I did not-”
Gunnar cut her off, “Classified, ma’am. Your ears only.” He waited, hands easy at his sides and as non-threatening as a Legionnaire could appear to a human, until Ben-Zvi gave a nod to her subordinates. Then Gunnar followed them out, shutting the door behind him.
“This better be fucking important.”
Malak ignored her, feeling every bit as tired as he ever had. His stomach was cramping with hunger in a way it hadn’t since his early testing days, and the lack of sensation in his back was beginning to concern him. Thomas had stated the horse had left the barn. It was a nonsensical idiom, like many of the things his superior said, but after years of hearing it Malak understood the meaning. He had committed to this mission and saving these few thousand humans and he did not do things half-way. Malak crossed to a low table designed to project maps and leaned against it, then removed his helmet. Ben-Zvi, to her credit, did not visibly react. Her heart, however, began to beat faster, and Malak could smell the increase in adrenaline.
He flipped his knife out, studied the layer of dried ichor on it, then waved Hanako over.
“How clean is yours? You’ll have to cut me out of this, I think the kinetic gel hardened to my skin.”
“Save them. Can’t feel anything.” He kept his eyes on Ben-Zvi as Hanako got to work, sawing first through the collar of his armor and then down the back of one arm so she could peel it away. As predicted, the gel had stuck to him, and it took wide strips of burned skin with it as it was removed. That, Malak could feel, and he had to breathe deeply to avoid making any sound of pain. Once the upper half of his suit was off, Hanako silently went to work with antiseptic and an emergency skin graft.
“So this is the infamous Legion,” Ben-Zvi broke first. “Lead by a tuber.” Her expression was hard, but she gave nothing else away.
“So it would seem.” He wanted to get straight to the point. Discussions of force numbers and positioning, strategy. However, the long, slow learning process of dealing with the Falcons advised him to set the command structure straight first, and establish a working respect, or things would end badly. “Is that a problem for you?” Hanako’s subdermal syringe found a spot that still had a few nerve endings, and he could not prevent the twitch of his shoulders as cold fluid splashed across burned tissue.
“You were on VK10. You stole Lieutenant Maker’s comm codes.”
Lieutenant. He hadn’t realized she had been promoted. It was not surprising, somehow. Despite terrible odds and superiors that seemed determined to throw her into impossible situations, she had survived. The Coalition would reward that. Malak was more impressed – grudgingly – by her tenacity to defend those under her command.
“If I was, that would be classified above your pay grade.”
“If you were,” Ben-Zvi countered with narrowed eyes, “you saved the lives of more than three battalions of my soldiers.” She waited, but despite his decision to meet with her, he was not willing to confirm Legion movements. It was interesting, and contradictory to Coalition precedent, that she was more interested in lives than protocol. Hanako began abrading loose skin and he had to clench his jaw.
“Maker called in an airstrike a few hours ago,” she switched topics suddenly and Malak had trouble determining her intentions. Not good, he was certain. “My Captain took a big risk on her call – it seems she took a big risk on you. Why is that?” When he still didn’t respond, she continued, “They broke off defending one of our own, the Saladin, to make that strike. My last report shows significant damage to both ships now. Khalid rammed a Red Class – lost an entire deck to a hull breech. The Saladin lost her bridge.”
“She survived?” Malak cursed himself the moment the words were out of his mouth and blamed his lapse on the punishing pressure Hanako was using to adhere a graft to his back.
“The ship, or the Lieutenant?” He had no response, but she studied his face and seemed to relax as if she had found one. “You are good at what you do…Soldier. Do you have any suggestions for how we might salvage this situation?” Suggestions, not orders or commands. Ben-Zvi might not be hostile, but neither would she give him even a fraction that she did not feel he had earned.
That was fine with Malak. Hanako stepped away, finished with her first aid, and he reached for the lightweight undershirt and armor jacket. One glance at the pants confirmed they would never fit his legs. The shirt was surprisingly comfortable, the tight fit pressing his back together gently. The jacket barely stretched over his shoulders, but was long enough to seal to his own pants. He double checked his rounds, attached weapons and the remains of the med kit to his belt and started his system booting up with Legion codes.
“I understand technetium shouldn’t be exposed to oxygen.”
Ben-Zvi leaned back into her heels, a quirk to her lips indicating humor or capitulation. Malak couldn’t tell which.
“You Legionnaires really like to burn things down, don’t you?”